Thursday 29 September 2016

It seems no one wants to go into government

We're stuck in a weird limbo and people are very quickly getting tired of the chaos the political class is inflicting on us

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Under fire: Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, and Minister for Agriculture and Defence, Simon Coveney Photo: Gerry Mooney
Under fire: Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, and Minister for Agriculture and Defence, Simon Coveney Photo: Gerry Mooney

It didn't take them long to deliver chaos, did it? By Friday, the addition of snow into the mix seemed all too apt. We probably wouldn't have been too surprised if it started raining frogs.

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As the week went on, our initial giddiness at what we had done, at the flexing of our democratic muscles to demonise and destroy another government, gave way to a dawning realisation that things were indeed getting a bit messy. A seminal moment occurred midweek when Enda Kenny called for people to pay their water charges. This was the first moment that most people realised that no one was in charge, that no one had authority. Firstly, we realised that we didn't really care what Enda Kenny had to say because, while he is still technically Taoiseach, he lost the election, we threw him out. Secondly, we realised that even if Kenny had authority in general, a call to pay water charges was going nowhere. At this point the ones who hadn't paid were taking the mickey out of those who had in workplaces and pubs all over the country. Paying your taxes, or your charges, or whatever you want to call them, is now a mug's game in Ireland. Civil disobedience is now the sensible option apparently.

Politicians like to blame the media and even the public for discrediting politics. But last week, they had no one to blame but themselves. The situation, as far as anyone could understand it for most of the week, seemed to be that despite all their entreaties during the election campaign, no one wanted to be in government. This is partially to do with how the numbers shook out, but there also seems to be an underlying view that being in government is toxic in this country right now. The electorate has discovered a new game, which is gleefully decimating governments. This game was all the more fun for the electorate this time because it seems to have come as a surprise to at least one of the parties of government. No one seems quite sure how long this game is going to go on. But it seems most of the parties would like some breathing space before they go into government again. They'd like to save their turn until things have settled down a bit.

The left, who had fought hard to smash the 'right-wing' government, couldn't come out fast enough to say that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael should now form another 'right-wing' government, which cemented everyone's hunch that the left are far more comfortable with the whore's prerogative of opposition, and wouldn't know where to start if real responsibility were thrust on them. It also started this bizarre situation where it seems that going into government in Ireland is something that your political opponents now goad you into doing. "Go on. I dare you. Go into government."

Fianna Fail played a blinder initially by demanding more power for the Opposition, where it was assumed it wanted to stay for the time being, to keep an eye on Sinn Fein, while also running the country through supporting a Fine Gael minority. Early last week, most people began tacitly accepting that even though Fine Gael had 'lost' the election, it would stay in government, mainly because Enda Kenny seemed to be the only person who actually wanted to be in government, because otherwise he was finished as leader of the party, and it would be a bad ending for him. The view seemed to be that Enda would prefer to cling on for another little while, get through the 1916 stuff as Taoiseach, and have a more dignified exit.

But what became equally clear, when we put our minds to it, was that Fine Gael didn't exactly have a lot of alternatives as leader. Frances Fitzgerald was being mooted as a kind of neutral caretaker for the next while, but at a time when the country seriously needed leadership she didn't exactly excite people. Leo was spoken of, too, allegedly enjoying the backing of a slowly coalescing gang of malcontents, some of whom had lost their seats. The problem with Leo is that while he might have enjoyed a coronation at some point, we have got to know him far too well now. His semi-detached approach to Health and to the election campaign did him no favours. Simon Coveney, who is probably more impressive than either of the two aforementioned, then decided to come out during the week and shoot himself in the foot on water charges, necessitating a grovelling apology to his colleagues. So the chaos that Fine Gael had warned of had come to pass, but it was mainly within its own party.

Meanwhile, through Simon's aforementioned idiocy, and some complementary idiocy by Barry Cowen, water charges had somehow become the central issue in the formation of a government. And everyone decided that the end of water charges was a done deal now so we didn't need to pay them anymore. The people who had paid them then decided to take the hump for being made to look foolish. Those of us who paid the water charges were left wondering why health and homelessness and public services, the issues we thought had lost the election for Fine Gael, were not being discussed at all. And equally, why all the focus on water charges, when most people are paying a multiple of that in property tax, for which we get nothing in return? If everything is suddenly up for grabs, why is no one standing up for the coping classes and demanding a repeal of property tax?

As the water issue appeared to spiral, suddenly it seemed as if there was no one in charge. And weirdly, in all this, the country began to look increasingly to Micheal Martin for some leadership, which is probably the last thing he wanted.

This pressure seemed to cause Fianna Fail to announce towards the end of the week that it was looking to form a government, which was a complete curveball, probably even to many people within Fianna Fail. But if there's one thing worse than getting caught to go into government right now, it is getting caught not wanting to go into government.

What we are witnessing right now is probably some kind of tribal face-off for who gets more votes as Taoiseach next week. Which could end up backfiring on Fianna Fail if it wins. But then, whether this translates into anyone forming a government seems unlikely for now. Though if anyone is to form a government right now you'd imagine it is more likely to be Fine Gael, seeing as Enda needs to do it.

In the meantime, as we hang in this weird limbo, which was fun for a day or two, it is becoming more and more unsettling. The idea of some cobbled-together government without authority might suit the machinations and manoeuvres of career politicians trying to position themselves for the next election, but it leaves the country adrift at a fairly critical time. The markets may not have reacted to our stalemate yet, but the moneymen won't love an unpredictable, lame-duck administration in the medium term.

And what about Brexit? Depending on what happens in Britain, we could soon be faced with an existential crisis regarding our own membership of the EU. Do we want such an important moment to be dealt with some kind of half-in, half-out government, by a party that is reluctantly in power because it lost a game of pass the parcel? If they can't even agree on what to say about water charges, what hope have they of managing that? Will Barry Cowen or any of his colleagues in Leinster house be conveniently ill that day?

The Men of 1916 would be proud, wouldn't they? They died for our right to govern ourselves. And 100 years on that's the last thing our politicians seem to want to do. It's probably time for them all to get together and do some seriously creative thinking. Because if they arrive back on our doorsteps too soon, they might all get treated as if they were in government.

Sunday Independent

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